An Irish vampire makes his big-screen debut

Chris Baugh’s film The Boys from County Hell revives the myth of Abhartach

The Boys from County Hell concerns a Tyrone prankster who enjoys scaring tourists with tall tales and tricks around the grave of Abhartach.

The Boys from County Hell concerns a Tyrone prankster who enjoys scaring tourists with tall tales and tricks around the grave of Abhartach.

 

Everyone knows who Dracula is, but have you heard of his Irish predecessor, Abhartach? In the years since Bram Stoker published his best-known novel, historians and academics have squabbled over Abhartach’s influence over the Transylvanian count. The link between Stoker and the Ulster myth was popularised by Bob Curran, lecturer in Celtic history and folklore at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, in the essay “Was Dracula an Irishman?” which featured in History Ireland in 2000.

Stoker was almost certainly familiar with Patrick Weston Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (1875) which recounts a legend associated with the parish of Errigal in Derry: “This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain . . . but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country.”

Dracula has been inspiring filmmakers since FW Murnau’s unauthorised Nosferatu in 1922. Almost a century later, Abhartach makes his big-screen debut in Chris Baugh’s The Boys from County Hell.

“I came across the story because I was trying to find something that was inherently Irish,” says Baugh. “We wanted to make something that felt uniquely of here. From that, we could feed into the mythology of this vampire film, because obviously, the vampire legend and all the tropes of the genre are so tied to Bram Stoker. Abhartach was a jumping-off point. Like the idea that he has to be stabbed through the heart to be contained, that he can’t be killed, that he has to be contained under a pile of stones. That all comes directly from the legend. We thought that was really cool stuff. But then we augmented and added kind of our own spin on it as well. That all he has to do is be in proximity to his victims for him to draw blood. That was something we came up with.”

The Boys from County Hell concerns  Eugene Moffat (Jack Rowan), a Tyrone prankster who enjoys scaring tourists with tall tales and tricks around the grave of Abhartach. When a construction crew headed by Eugene’s father Francie (Nigel O’Neill) unearths the undead legend, the unprepared locals are picked off by the ancient vampire. Mayhem ensues. Following on from 2017’s crime thriller Bad Day for the Cut in which a farmer (O’Neill again) seeks to avenge the death of his elderly mother, County Hell is Baugh’s second genre movie set around his home parish.

“I was born in Canada and lived there until I was seven when we came home; both my parents are Irish,” he says. “Growing up in the 1990s, I loved all the usual films: Scorsese, the Coens. I’d make films in sequence with a camcorder because I didn’t know how to edit them yet. Seeing Kevin Smith’s Clerks for the first time was a big influence because I realised you could actually make a funny, authentic movie in your hometown, on a low budget, by yourself. Seeing I Went Down was important as well because it’s a funny, visceral kind of gangster thriller that’s also inherently Irish.”

It has been a promising summer in the movieverse with the return of the multiplex, the return of the Cannes film festival, and the return of enough footfall to convert F9, A Quiet Place Part II, and The Conjuring 3 into box-office hits.

Northern Ireland Screen

Closer to home, it has been a promising summer for Northern Ireland Screen. The screen agency has no fewer than three films on release this month. Joining Boys from County Hell is Black Medicine, starring Antonia Campbell-Hughes as a doctor who carries out illegal operations for the criminal underworld, which dropped on Amazon Prime in early July. Nowhere Special, a tearjerker about a dying single dad (James Norton) seeking a new family for his young son was shot in Northern Ireland by The Full Monty’s Uberto Pasolini and is currently in cinemas.

“It’s just a really exciting time for indigenous Northern Irish filmmaking and filmmakers,” says Baugh. “There are so many stories to be told about this place. If you look at Ordinary Love and The Dig, and The Boys from County Hell, it’s such a breadth of different genres, different stories, different actors and different aesthetics. A very fresh, varied kind of cinema has grown up here. We’re very lucky in Northern Ireland that we have the new-talent focus scheme, which allows filmmakers to progress from shorts to first features. Bad Day for the Cut, The Dig, The Devil’s Doorway and The Survivalist all came out of that scheme. For me, it’s exciting just to be part of the Northern Ireland film conversation.”

The industry has been further boosted by the Game of Thrones effect. Larger visiting productions translate into experienced crews. One of Baugh’s earliest jobs after graduating from the Surrey Institute of Art and Design was with the Jim Henson Workshop on their Belfast-shot Sesame Tree.

“It was a fun job seeing the incredible level of detail and talent that went into those puppets,” he recalls. “I worked there until my late 20s, while I was making shorts and kind of developing scripts, and then, you know, maybe it was like an early midlife crisis, but at a certain point I decided that kids’ TV was not really where my heart was. I left and went off and started Six Mile Hill productions with Brendan Mullin.”

Baugh and Mullin are currently developing a superhero heist movie with Legendary Pictures, the production company behind The Dark Knight trilogy and the Mamma Mia sequence. Baugh, additionally, will direct Wrecked, a six-part comedy-horror for BBC. And he’s still hoping to complete his Tyrone trilogy with Nigel O’Neill.

“The locations are stunning even if it does get cold when you’re shooting at night,” he says. “And I like to work with a lot of the same people. Like Ryan Kernaghan the DP. And John Leslie, the production designer who can stretch a budget to make it look like three times more than what it actually cost. We built sets on Boys from County Hell that we had no right building for the budget that we had. We all kind of pull for each other. And that’s important when you’re trying to do independent movies like this.”

The Boys from County Hell opens on Friday, August 6th 

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